We were scheduled to meet Steve’s parents in Venice the night of July 18th. Doing so meant another long day of train travel with two switches and given our train mix-up a few days before, we weren’t super excited for the opportunity to repeat ourselves.
We took the tram to the Nice train station and found our regional train that would take us across the Italian border to Ventimiglia. The regional trains are frequent and don’t require reservations, so unless you get there and fight your way on right when it pulls in, you won’t get a seat for the busy stretches. From Nice to Monaco we stood shoulder to shoulder in an aisle. Thankfully, two thirds of the train unloaded at Monaco and we were able to get seats for the rest of the short ride into Italy.
From Ventimiglia, we went to Milan, the common switching point for international trains into Italy. Thankfully this time we had reserved seats in a first class compartment that we shared with a nice older couple from Sydney. They were on a six week trip all around Italy and had been just about everywhere else in Europe, so for two hours we swapped travel stories – where to go, where to avoid, where is overpriced (somewhere on the coast the guy ordered a gin and tonic that ended up being 44euro), where you want to eat or not (which somehow led to us all cracking up to the old lady doing her best impression of goat noises). The conversation was interrupted for a few minutes when the lady checking everybody’s train tickets got into a loud argument with a girl a few compartments away, saying either pay a fine or get off the train (…the train was still moving at the time). The girl was apparently trying to travel on an expired Eurail pass. Needless to say, when the ticket checker came to our compartment all of our documents were ready to be presented.
We had to switch trains in Milan and had exactly 10 minutes to get off of one train and onto the next. Thankfully our train pulled in on time and we made our last connection (double checking that it was the correct train) and were on our way to Venice. It had already been a long day, so we both took naps and woke up as we were going over the water to the odd mass of land and canals that makes up the city.
Oddly enough, we pulled in about 15 minutes late, which ate into the half hour we’d given ourselves to walk to the hotel. Venice is a very small city, but you rarely go in a straight line to get anywhere. Instead of taking the easy option of paying seven euros each for a ride on the water bus, we trusted that the walking route shown by google maps (which we only had a picture of on Steve’s phone) would get us there. With only one small mistake, we found our way to the hotel and were greeted by the familiar faces of Steve’s parents. We went for a gondola ride and then had dinner along the Grand Canal before calling it a night.
July 19th – The cruise
After we told people that we were taking this trip, Steve’s parents put forth the idea of meeting and taking a cruise, something that we were all for. It would it be a nice break from the tedious parts of travel – finding trains, sitting on trains, scheduling check in times, unpacking, packing – repeating every few days. We would get to go further east to a lot of places that would have been impossible for us to squeeze in otherwise. And after more than five weeks on the road, it would be great spending time with family and being able to talk about familiar things back home.
We got a leisurely start on Friday morning and were eventually met by our escort and picked up by a boat right outside the hotel. We went along the grand canal to the port and waited while a line of other boats loaded and unloaded other people that were starting or returning from their cruises. Steve’s parents put their suitcases in a pile that they hoped was going to our ship and we all walked to the check-in area. After snaking our way through a line to get our boarding cards, we passed through security and climbed aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Splendour of the Seas.
The ship was, well, a cruise ship. It wasn’t one of the newer super-massive ships with bumper cars and an ice rink, but it carried almost 2000 passengers and however many crew needed to operate a ship/hotel/restaurant with that many guests. There was a small gym, ¼ mile jogging track, a rock climbing wall, a casino, a theater, several bars and restaurants, and a couple pools on top. Day to day was what you’d expect if you’ve been on cruises before – the regular shoveling of buffet food into your face, getting drinks, catching bits of entertainment, and heading out every day to visit whichever location you’d arrived at overnight.
The first night we gathered on the balcony to watch as the ship slowly glided out of Venice into the Ionian Sea.
July 20th – Dubrovnik, Croatia
When we booked the cruise, the first stop was listed as Bari, Italy. We were a bit confused, but pleasantly so, when later we saw that the stop had been moved to Dubrovnik, a city and country that none of us had been to. We took an excursion off the ship that started with a ride on a replica of a pirate ship, because what better way to travel to an old walled city than in a pirate ship? We drank a couple of Croatian beers while getting an overview of the very complicated history of the country.
Passing through the walls we got so see a city lost in time. The limestone streets have been polished by foot traffic to resemble marble, giving old Dubrovnik a dirty white color that has been unique among the cities we’ve visited. It was actually used in the filming of Game of Thrones (which we haven’t seen, so somebody else can look that up). We took a tour through the city’s main church, which included a vault full of relics (meaning – body parts of saints and religious figures, supposedly including some of Jesus’ diapers.)
We had lunch at Nautika, which according to the tour guide was voted the sixth most romantic restaurant in the world. Eating lunch with thirty other people during a tour wasn’t super romantic, but the view over the water was gorgeous.
We walked out of the city and took a bus up to base of the cable car that ran to a lookout above the old city. Pictures do better than words at describing the view from the top.
Once back on the ship we had dinner with a family from New Jersey (you get placed with people to fill up big tables on the ship). Steve’s parents went to a show and we won a few bucks in the casino to end the night.
July 21 – Corfu, Greece
We set our clocks forward and hour and got up early to catch our tour bus for the day. This one included a trip up to the top of the island to the second oldest monastery… which wasn’t original because it had all been rebuilt within the last couple hundred years. The monastery was still in use, and was kind of awkward to visit because it was Sunday and they were holding a church service. Imagine a tiny church filled with old locals being passed through by streams of visitors in the middle of service. Outside the church were gardens filled with grapes, beans, and wandering cats. A one-room museum with old religious texts and paintings rounded out visit before we boarded the bus to go to our next stop, the Achilleon Palace.
This palace was the home of the empress of Bavaria toward the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As might be expected, it was well decorated with paintings and sculptures throughout. The palace got its name due to the family’s love of Achilles, with one of the highlights being the statue of Achilles after he was shot with the arrow.
We made our way out of the palace and into old Corfu and ended our trip with a carriage ride around the town. It was as you might expect for an old section of city on an island – somewhat dirty with a lot of graffiti, but the ride was a nice change after much time on the bus.
That night we shared a table with a trio of blondes, a mother and her daughters from Scotland. When we could understand them through their extremely thick accents, they were pleasant enough, although one of the girls said that she wished she were American because she loved American culture… such as the Kardashians. Everybody – join us in a collective face-palm for the cultural message that America is sending the rest of the world…
July 22nd – Santorini, Greece
Santorini is a small island without a port able to accommodate cruise ships, so we stopped a little ways away and had to take tenders to land. We had flashbacks of Tarifa when our departure was delayed because the wind was making the water to choppy to load and unload people from the tenders. They eventually turned the entire cruise ship around to help block the wind on the loading side, so we were able to get ashore. We took a bus up and over the rocky top of the island and down to the southeastern shore where black, volcanic beaches awaited us. We grabbed a few beach chairs and umbrellas and ordered Greek beer from the bar staff running around. For the next few hours we lounged and went for swims in the chilly Aegean sea.
While we were at the beach, the cruise ship moved north along the island to stop just outside another port. Our bus took us to the top of the island that was filled with shops and restaurants overlooking the water. To get back down to the tenders, you could either walk the stairs (almost 600 steps), ride a donkey down the stairs, or ride a cable car. We opted to wait in line for the cable car and save our legs.
It was formal night on the ship, which we skipped because we didn’t want to carry “nice” clothes with us for the whole trip just for a couple of formal dinners. We met with Steve’s parents for a couple of drinks before parting ways, them heading to the formal dining room and us to slum it in the buffet. It was nice in the buffet, not crowded at all like it often got during breakfast and lunch.
July 23 – Kusadasi, Turkey
Turkey is one of those middle countries that is both in Europe and in Asia, but being that Kusadasi is in the Asian part, we got to add another continent to our list. North America, Europe, Africa, and now Asia. Not bad for being just shy of six weeks into our trip. The highlight of Kusadasi is Ephesus, the large expanse of roman ruins sitting a few miles inland. We had a guide talk us through the ruins of a large port city. Once the host of the Temple of Diana, a wonder of the ancient world, the city was slowly abandoned due to a combination of frequent malaria and retreating seas.
We walked through a covered excavation of several massive houses. Inside they were trying to piece together the shattered pieces of marble that once covered the walls. Original mosaics floors were still intact. Frescoes covered other walls with pictures of gods and goddesses. Archeologists had uncovered shopping lists children’s drawings of gladiators on the walls. The scale of the excavation was immense, something that was hard to believe after seeing the picture of the site before they started. Time had covered this massive expanse of houses with dirt and plants so that nothing was visible.
At the end of one of the main streets through town, Austrian workers rebuilt the façade of the town’s library. Jokes were rampant about how the library was located directly across the street from a brothel. Just past the library led into the agora, where the reconstruction of the 120+ original shops had just begun. Above the open expense where the shops once stood was the city’s theater that faced outward toward what was once the sea.
After a very impressive tour of Ephesus, we were taken back to the port where we endured a demonstration on Turkish carpets. It was basically a big showroom where they throw rugs everywhere with the ultimate goal being to get you to spend $700 on a bathroom rug. Nice as the rugs were, we left as soon as the demonstration ended. We walked around for a while, Steve and his dad sitting down with a giant beer while Jenny and his mom shopped.
Before getting back on the ship, Steve bought a bottle of Jameson in a duty free shop and figured he’d try his luck at getting it aboard. We managed to pass through security without getting stopped. Yay for cheap drinks for the next couple of days! We enjoyed pre-dinner contraband cocktails before heading to dinner with a Polish/Australian couple and a Canadian couple. After dinner, some more whiskey disappeared with the rest of the night.
Next up, in Part 2, Athens.